March of the Chinchillas – on the Inca Trail


One of the things I love to do most of all is travel. I love the thrill of going somewhere I’ve never been before, especially a new country or, better still, a new continent (though I’m fast running out of those), and of experiencing a new culture. Of course, when you’re partially sighted, travel always becomes more of an adventure, especially if you like travelling alone as I do. But even though I usually end up having at least one terrible moment on any given trip, I try to learn from my mistakes. Or at least, I try to see the funny side afterwards.

This year I decided to go somewhere I’ve been dying to go for years – Peru. I’ve always had my eye on walking the Inca Trail and visiting Macchu Pichu, but never got round to it. So after the success of my 2 week holiday in Cuba earlier this year, I decided to go for it, with Exodus again. Oddly, the things I was most nervous about were mainly things other people would think stupid. My two biggest fears were getting a dodgy stomach while trekking, and what the camping would be like (and how cold it would be). I was also a bit worried about getting soaking wet walking and not being able to dry out overnight. I wasn’t particularly worried about altitude sickness, or at least, only to the extent of getting a bad stomach. Oh, and my other biggest fear was not being able to negotiate my way around the campsite in the dark, for example to get to the toilet. And just how badly the toilet tent would smell. Oddly enough, all these worst fears came true apart from the getting extremely wet. I suffered from altitude sickness, had stomach problems and vomiting for 24 hours, collapsed twice and was almost airlifted off the mountain as a result of some combination of altitude sickness and dehydration, and a couple of nights couldn’t even begin to navigate my way around the campsite in the dark. Of course, I survived all these problems and many more.

On the plus side, my worries about whether I had the right gear (warm enough / cool enough) were unfounded as I got that spot on. The weather changed from tshirt, shorts and suncream to 4 layers and ski gloves within 10 minutes. At night my worry about being cold was also largely unfounded. As soon as we got to the campsite I put on 4 layers (2 thermal tops, a fleece jumper and a light down jacket) and was fine pretty much every evening. At night I was toasty warm in my trusty 3 season down sleeping bag with a silk liner (though many people were cold), and on the coldest night we got “hot water bottles” (so glad I took a metal water bottle with me as well as my hydration pouch!). We spent most of the evenings sitting in the dining tent which was warm when everyone was in there, and then a quick run to the tents. I also bit the bullet about my sight issues and just asked for help around the campsite. Everyone was brilliant about helping me out – I usually made it to the dining tent before dark and simply asked someone to escort me back to my tent when it did get dark. Similarly when we had to walk 2 miles along an unlit track back to the campsite in Aguas Calientes, I simply asked someone to guide me and to give me their arm, and they turned out to be an excellent guide dog. There was a time when I wouldn’t have summoned up the courage to ask, and would have struggled, but I’m getting better at this now, much though I still hate it and have to pysch myself up to do it. Actually the less I think about it the better. And of course, no one’s going to refuse if I ask for help. The one major problem I had was going to the loo in the night, on a couple of nights when there was no way I could negotiate my way to the toilet tent. Luckily it was dark and I just went behind the tent with noone any the wiser. Even more luckily, the night I had a bad stomach, I managed to negotiate my way to the toilet tent (although it was tricky and I did fall in the ditch on two occasions!). Sometimes the guides can be a bit funny about my lack of sight – either choosing to ignore it or being over conscientious (actually I’ve never had the latter, but I can believe some of them might be). Juan was fantastic – he never brought up the topic and treated me just like anyone else (actually he forgot a few times about my sight, which led to some comedy conversations), but I felt he was always watching out for me just in case. Same with the diabetes, I could sense he was discreetly watching from a distance without making a fuss. On the first day (I think) when I had low blood sugar in the early afternoon, I struggled for a couple of miles and fell to the back of the group. I didn’t mention it specifically to Juan, although I think I did mention it to a couple of the group, and he said nothing but walked beside me until I felt better. Or maybe he was just oblivious!

People were also very good about helping me out – whether intentionally or coincidentally, I’m not sure. For example, when we had a toilet stop, it was rare that I could actually figure out where the toilet was. It would usually be in a hut somewhere, that could have been anything. I quickly developed the habit of finding someone else going, and following them, although sometimes it was problematic finding my way back. it might sound odd, but it’s worse when there are other people standing around, because you know they’re watching you while you’re desperately trying to figure out which was the way back. One of my main problems was distinguishing which was the kitchen tent (which we weren’t allowed in) and which was the dining tent, as they both looked the same to me and were right next to each other. A couple of times one of the porters had to direct me to the other tent. I tried not to feel too embarrassed and shrugged it off as being tired!

There was only one major disappointment on the trek. On the fourth day we finally reached the Sun Gate and our first view of Macchu Pichu. It was the culmination of our trek and as we finally reached the top, Juan was there waiting to congratulate us on making it, with a big kiss and a hug. I walked through the gate, and it hit me. Nothing. I couldn’t see anything interesting at all. All around me, people were gasping and frantically taking photos and celebrating (not just from our group, but from many other groups also). I fought back the tears and wondered what they were all looking at. Finding a quiet spot away from the crowds, I sat down on the edge of a rock and tried to breathe. Had I come all this way for, well, nothing? I should feel exhilarated, but all I felt was terrible sadness and disappointment, not just that I couldn’t see anything, but that this was the end of the trek. I wished everyone would hurry up and move on, but it was a long time before everyone even arrived at the gate. Finally I gave myself a good talking to, and dutifully went to take a photo. The problem was, I didn’t know where to point my camera. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking at or in quite which direction. I aimed my camera at a couple of random points and clicked away. If someone noticed I was pointing it in the wrong direction, I could pretend to be taking a picture of a bird or something. After what seemed like an eternity, I followed the others down to the entrance itself, unusually silent for me. I was determined not to let on how I felt, as I knew no one would really understand. As we rounded the final corner, my whole attitude changed. I saw Macchu Pichu in all its glory, and realised that while I had missed the first view, I could now see pretty much what I’d missed from before, just from closer. And when I finally uploaded my photos to my computer, I discovered I’d actually taken a couple of decent shots from the Sun Gate after all.

In summary, my sight wasn’t a big issue on the trip (not that I had thought it would be too much of one), apart from the usual difficulties of campsites at night, diabetes wasn’t an issue, although it may have exacerbated the dehydration problems – more on that in another post – and my fitness wasn’t a problem (not that I was particularly worried about that). Nor of course was spending 2 weeks with a random group of strangers! I’ve done enough Exodus trips not to worry about that. Despite being terribly ill (see the next post), it was an amazing holiday. When I came back and recounted all my tales, people said how adventurous I was to do all these things. For me, it’s a no-brainer. (1) I love travelling and experiencing new cultures. (2) I love getting out and being active on holiday, and don’t particularly like Christmas and the enforced inactivity, fake jollity and consumerism. (3) I don’t know how long I have left before my body refuses to cooperate and I lose my sight completely, or my body falls apart in some other way. My mum regrets bitterly having never done the Inca Trail, and there’s no way her body can cope with doing it now. I don’t want to regret having never done these things while I could. I already mourn the lack of years I had doing some of the things I can’t do now: playing cricket amd lacrosse (too dangerous now), playing almost any sport to a much higher level than I now can, doing things like LaserQuest and go-karting, being able to drive a car, and just generally being able to do almost anything more easily than I now can, from shopping to cooking to watching TV to climbing mountains. Whatever experiences I have travelling and being adventurous, they’re better than the regrets I would have if I didn’t manage to do them.

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